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Jenny Baker
/ Categories: TIP, 2021, 583

Experts Insights on I-O’s Best-Kept Career Secret: A Two-Part Reflection on Postdoctoral Work

Chelsea LeNoble, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; Danielle Wald, Baruch College & The Graduate Center, CUNY; & Dana C. Verhoeven, National Cancer Institute

Postdocs matter. As a group, they are characterized by passion, dedication, vitality, their considerable abilities, and their drive. They truly merit further support in their career development because they make a difference to universities and the world itself—not just in research terms but also as potential global leaders in wide-ranging and diverse fields.

  • Rob Wallach, Director of Postdoctoral Affairs, University of Cambridge, 2017

 

For many fields, such as clinical psychology, medicine, chemistry, biology, and engineering, postdoctoral work is either explicitly required or implicitly expected. They are more common in fields that typically receive funding from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), with work that is geared toward solving some of the nation’s most significant research needs (e.g., new cancer treatments). As of 2018, the NSF National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) reports there are 64,783 postdoctoral scholars in science, engineering, and health fields in the United States (NCSES, 2018). Of those, less than 5% (2,652) represent psychology and social sciences.  In 2019, compared to 58% and 57.6% of doctoral graduates in life and physical sciences who committed to postdoctoral study following graduation, 39.7% of psychology and social science doctorates (NCSES, 2020) and 3.1% of business management doctorates had definite postdoctoral plans (NCSES, 2020).

Traditionally, industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology and related fields have had less funding from these agencies, which translates to fewer opportunities to support postdoctoral work. Although postdoctoral positions had previously been relatively rare in I-O, this pattern is changing. Within psychology broadly, the number of postdoctoral fellows has risen each year since 2015, with about 94% representing general, applied, and research psychology (NCSES, 2018). As the complexities of modern work increase, and as funding agencies continue to better understand the potential of I-Os to solve complex issues, research funding—in general, and for postdocs specifically—will continue to increase. This presents not only a fantastic opportunity but also a critical need for the field to better understand and thereby maximize the potential of postdoctoral work. Postdoctoral work can promote interdisciplinary work, increase academic departmental productivity, and enhance research quality within organizations—all of which serve to enhance the science and practice of I-O psychology. However, because few resources exist that illustrate the numerous benefits of these roles and bring these opportunities to the forefront, many of those who are most likely to benefit (i.e., students/grads, mentors, organizations) are not aware of these advantages.

To address these gaps, we solicited responses from a panel of experts in the domain of postdoctoral work for the 2020 SIOP Virtual Conference. The experts include those who have held postdoctoral fellowships, mentored postdocs, and funded postdoctoral positions. Our aim is to present the personal postdoctoral experiences of these individuals and to explore postdoctoral work as a beneficial route toward academic and applied careers. We do this in two parts. In Part 1 (this article), we provide an overview of postdoctoral work and how it fits into the world of I-O psychology. We offer insights for individuals interested in pursuing or currently incumbent in postdoctoral roles, including career advantages and best practices. In Part 2 (next issue), we shift the focus to mentoring postdocs. We offer considerations for those currently mentoring postdocs and those interested in mentoring postdocs in the future. In both parts, we include additional insights quoted directly from the experts in postdoctoral work, whose bios can be found in the Appendix. By providing expert insight, this paper aims to communicate information and resources about postdoctoral work to the I-O community.

Part 1: Postdoctoral Work in I-O and Insights for Postdocs

Overview of Postdoctoral Work in I-O

A postdoctoral scholar (postdoc) “has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path” (Bravo & Olsen, 2007, para. 2). I-Os have considered the role of postdocs; early on, the Committee on Training considered the responsibility of Division 14 to provide postdoctoral training, emphasizing the importance for practitioners (Benjamin, 1997). In a 2000 TIP missive, Kenneth Shultz proposed a column topic about postdoc opportunities for I-O graduates, explaining the benefits of his own postdoc experience while acknowledging their relative rarity in I-O. More recently, the March 2014 issue of Industrial Organizational Psychology: Perspectives of Science and Practice (IOP) once again brought the criticality of postdoctoral experience to the forefront, posing the question of whether academic graduates should be required to complete a postdoc (Byrne et al., 2014). Those who disagreed with a required postdoc highlighted a key issue in the realm of postdoctoral work in I-O: The logistics surrounding getting such positions are complex due to their historically limited availability (i.e., the concern posed by Jackson et al., 2014 that postdocs are too scarce to require).

Since then, postdoctoral opportunities have increased for I-O graduates. The number of postdoctoral fellows in psychology and social sciences has increased steadily each year, with an overall increase of 44% from 2010 to 2018 (NCSES, 2018). Although this increase in postdoc opportunities in I-O offers several opportunities to advance our field, uncertainty regarding the benefits or role of postdoctoral work in one’s career path (for prospective postdocs) or research lab (for prospective mentors) may make it harder for postdoctoral work to grow in I-O. To address this gap, our paper helps to demystify the postdoctoral experience in I-O for mentors, postdocs, and those considering postdoc opportunities. We illustrate the numerous benefits of postdoctoral work and bring attention to challenges so that prospective postdocs and mentors may be better equipped to take advantage of postdoctoral opportunities.

Is a Postdoc Right for You? Insights for Prospective Postdocs

Career opportunities for graduates of I-O psychology and related doctoral programs fall into two paths: academic and applied (the latter including government, industry, and consulting; Zelin et al., 2015). Similarly, postdoc opportunities span academic and applied organizations. See Table 1 for resources and information about postdoc opportunities. In fact, a 2006 study of employment following postdoc experiences found a near 50–50 split between individuals who went into academic settings (49%) and those who went into industry (41%), suggesting that PhD graduates come away from their postdoc experience as strong candidates for either (Hoffer et al., 2008). Postdocs typically work for 1–5 years under the supervision of a senior scholar. This work most often focuses on conducting independent research with limited, if any, teaching responsibilities. Below, we outline advantages and challenges of postdoctoral work as well as considerations for pursuing and succeeding in a postdoc.

Table 1
Resources for Seeking and Learning About Postdoctoral Work

Resource type

Name and hyperlink

Federal postdoc funding

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

Innovative Postdoctoral Entrepreneurial Research Fellowship

National Cancer Institute

National Institutes for Health

National Science Foundation

Presidential Management Fellows Program

Professional organizations

American Psychological Association

Association for Psychological Science     

Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers

National Postdoctoral Association

Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology

Higher education postdoc listings

Inside Higher Ed

Post-docs.com

PostdocJobs.com

The Chronicle of Higher Education

 

Advantages of Obtaining a Postdoc

Postdoctoral positions provide several advantages for PhD graduates. First, they allow for more time to explore career options, learn about alternative job opportunities (e.g., in the government sector), and perhaps make a decision about how desirable a research-focused career would be. Marissa Shuffler highlighted this benefit by stating that

postdocs should be able to hit the ground running faster than typical newly minted PhDs.; they’ve had a chance to really put all of their knowledge from grad school into practice, have expanded their skillsets, and likely have a better understanding of what they want out of their career.

Bob Sinclair mentioned an experience that echoes this sentiment in an academic career path. Reflecting on his personal experiences, Sinclair recalled the sense that new tenure-track faculty with a postdoc experience were exceptionally well prepared the moment they arrived on the job:

When I took my first academic job at the University of Tulsa, the university hired three clinical psychology PhDs within a year or so of hiring me. All had come from 2-year postdocs. I was impressed (and a bit intimidated) at how much better prepared they were.

Second, postdocs are designed to allow one to devote a considerable amount of time and resources to research. With few teaching and coursework obligations, aspiring academics can focus on building well- established programs of research with better developed scholarly agendas. They have more time to publish, pursue high-impact research projects outside of their immediate focus, learn new statistical tools and methods, gain experience in grant writing, and learn to better manage large-scale projects before juggling the demands of tenure-track roles. Dr. Sinclair highlighted the importance of these opportunities by stating, “postdocs also can benefit from additional mentoring about how to choose projects/tasks that will set them up for their future academic careers (for example, making sure that projects fit into a clear scholarly agenda rather than being haphazard).” In applied settings, this additional research experience enables postdocs to add rigor to research efforts within all types of organizations while also building the skills to communicate the value of I-O to non-I-O audiences.

Third, postdocs provide the chance to expand one’s social network of colleagues in the field. With a broader professional network of mentors and collaborators, postdocs have more exposure to experts both within and outside of their direct network and greater opportunities for continued collaboration even beyond their postdoc training.

Challenges of Postdoctoral Position

Despite the many advantages, prospective postdocs should also consider the limitations of these roles. They may not be the best fit depending on one’s career path. Overall, postdocs tend to be research-focused positions, so those with an interest in entering practice or consulting settings that do not have a strong research emphasis may not find such research-based positions helpful. Similarly, these positions may be less beneficial for those with a primary interest in teaching. Many government-funded postdoctoral positions have restrictions on teaching, and in general, teaching is not an expectation of these positions. Postdocs interested in teaching during their fellowship may need to seek exceptions to these restrictions and will have to balance their teaching interests with their full research workload.

Challenges may also arise given the structure of postdoc positions. For example, although having postdoctoral experience is associated with a higher potential salary compared to new graduates (NIH, 2018), relatively lower salaries during the postdoctoral fellowship—which by design will end within a few years—could lead to increased financial stress until a permanent position is secured. Postdocs are short-term, training positions and often require relocation, which could be less than ideal for some. Chris Wiese noted that although there can be financial drawbacks, “you can get through it if you keep your nose to the grindstone.” Still, for those ready to enter the job market in academia, there is likely to be more job stability in a tenure-track role than a postdoc.

 

Considerations for Choosing the Right Postdoc: Aligning Position Type and Career Goals

Postdoctoral positions are most appropriate for recent and early career PhD graduates aspiring to research-focused careers. As there are different types of postdoctoral opportunities, deciding to pursue postdoctoral work is only the first step. For those interested in obtaining a postdoc, it is important to consider the types of positions available in relation to one’s career goals. Our panelists offer some advice on selecting the right opportunity. According to Sinclair:

Potential postdocs may want to consider whether the position offers the right mix of guidance and latitude for what they seek. Some postdocs may involve much more structure in terms of what projects and what specific work is expected; others may be more open to the postdoc crafting their own position.

Wiese agreed that it is a matter of fit.

There are some post-docs that are more research based, where you are developing your research stream, networking with other scientists, and refining your data-analysis skills. Other postdocs are VERY project-management oriented—where your primary job is essentially a lab coordinator. It’s super important that you figure out what your roles and responsibilities are going to be during the interview stage. Otherwise, you may not be any more prepared for the job market when your postdoc ends.

An academic postdoctoral position would be particularly beneficial for those who need more research, publication, or grant experience to be competitive in the academic job market, want more training before starting a tenure-track position, or wish to focus on research before pursuing an applied research route (e.g., a research position or position in data science). Indeed, when discussing the benefits of a postdoc experience on the next job, Chelsea LeNoble explained:

There are a lot of challenges that new faculty face when they join a new institution. Graduate school doesn’t always prepare you for these. A postdoc can ease that transition, giving you more time to create your identity as an independent scholar and navigate institutional culture in a way that you may not have had to do as a graduate student. Having this extra time and training can improve your resilience to those challenges when you are able to start a full-time faculty position after the postdoc ends.

Additional postdoc opportunities exist within research labs outside of institutions of higher education. These may include postdocs with government agencies or industry. A government-funded postdoctoral position would be of significant value for those who want to learn about the internal grants processes (e.g., creating grants, selecting who to fund) or are interested in exploring future career opportunities within a government agency. These may be federal funding agencies or research centers that are at a more local or regional level. Relatively rarer, industry postdoc opportunities also exist with research-focused organizations or consulting firms. In some instances, there may be partnerships between academic entities (e.g., I-O psychology departments) and external organizations (e.g., healthcare systems) that share the cost of hiring a postdoc to facilitate research between the two. Dr. LeNoble highlighted the benefit of this type of postdoc for those who are interested in learning the nuances of building academic–industry partnerships and need experience translating research findings to non-I-O audiences.

Those considering postdoc positions may wonder what funding agencies and mentors look for in their applicants. Although the requirements or qualities of a successful postdoc vary across positions, prospective postdocs can make themselves stand out by clearly outlining their research goals and research knowledge and skills (data management, data analytics, writing). They should also be sure to show their research productivity, such as their publications, conference presentations, and experience with funded research. Our panelists emphasized having a collaborative skillset, a streak of resourcefulness, an interest in service, and the ability to discern what type of postdoc environment would best maximize their chance of success.

Tips to Get the Most Out of a Postdoc Experience

Postdocs provide enormous opportunity to grow as a researcher, and so it is important that it will be time well spent. Below are some tips to help postdocs succeed.
 

  1. Set goals and a plan to meet them. The postdoc experience can go fast, and so it is important that postdocs outline what they want to achieve during the postdoc period. To be efficient and productive, postdocs should take the time to define their goals and create a plan to achieve those goals.
  2. Take ownership and be proactive. Postdocs provide the opportunity to take ownership of one’s career. Postdocs should take advantage of this: publish (and then publish more!), explore unfamiliar research topics, engage in new and exciting research projects, learn new statistical tools and methods, and become an expert in grant writing. “Productive postdocs are proactive and get involved in activities/projects/conversations that broaden their knowledge and challenge their thinking. Learning goal orientation!” said Ruth Kanfer.
  3. Practice time-management and organizational skills. Strong time-management and organizational skills are key to the success of a postdoc. Postdocs are expected to take on multiple tasks, such as leading new research projects, applying for grants, submitting publications, and networking. Productive postdocs should make sure they manage and organize their time properly—create timelines for projects and publications, and continually revisit them to ensure milestones are being met. 
  4. Take advantage of the additional mentored training. A mentor is an invaluable resource for the training and development of a postdoc. They provide guidance and resources that aid in the advancement of the postdoc’s career path, research program, knowledge, skills, and professional network. Postdocs benefit greatly by seeking advice and learning opportunities from their mentors. Dana Verhoeven suggested that postdocs “set up recurring meetings with your mentor. If you don’t need to meet, you can always cancel, but it’s helpful to have a calendar placeholder to make sure you have time to check in.” Meeting regularly with one’s mentor to discuss career goals and opportunities for development will set the postdoc up for success.

 

Part 1: Closing Remarks

Uniquely situated to engage in dedicated research efforts (i.e., without teaching or coursework obligations), postdocs mentored by senior scientists can help to advance the science and practice of I-O psychology. Given not only the benefits of postdoctoral work but also the rise in postdoc opportunities, it’s important for our field to better understand the best practices of hiring and working as postdocs. In this first installment, we outlined considerations for prospective postdocs. In the next segment, we will bring attention to the advantages, challenges, and best practices of mentoring postdocs. 

 

References

Benjamin, L. T., Jr. (1997).  A history of Division 14 (The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology).  In D. A. Dewsbury (Ed.), Unification through division: Histories of the divisions of the American Psychological Association, Volume II. American Psychological Association.

Bravo, N. R. & Olsen, K. L. (2007, January). Letter to executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association, National Science Foundation. https://grants.nih.gov/training/Reed_Letter.pdf

Byrne, Z. S., Hayes, T. L., McPhail, S. M., Hakel, M. D., Cortina, J. M., & McHenry, J. J. (2014). Educating industrial–organizational psychologists for science and practice: Where do we go from here? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 7(1), 2–14.

Hoffer, T. B., Grigorian, K., & Hedberg, E. (2008, March). Postdoc participation of science, engineering, and health doctorate recipients. NSF 08-307, https://wayback.archive-it.org/5902/20160210152853/http%3A//www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf08307/#fn1

Jackson, A., Parker, K., & Waples, C. (2014). Don't forget about us! Students' perspectives. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 7(1), 31-34. doi:10.1111/iops.12100

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2018). Survey of graduate students and postdoctorates in science and engineering. http://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/gradpostdoc/

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2020, December 1). Survey of earned doctorates: Doctorate recipients from U.S. universities: 2019. Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, National Science Foundation. https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21308/data-tables

 National Institutes of Health. (2018). Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Stipends, tuition/fees and other budgetary levels effective for fiscal year 2019. https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-19-036.html

Shultz, K. S. (2004). TIP missives. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 37(4).  https://www.siop.org/TIP/backissues/TipApril00/29Missives.aspx

Wallach, R. (2017). Postdocs power research. Science, 357(6355), 951. DOI: 10.1126/science.aap8392

Zelin, A. Z., Lider, M., & Doverspike, D. (2015, December). SIOP careers study: Executive report. Center for Organizational Research at the University of Akron. https://www.siop.org/Portals/84/PDFs/Professionals/SIOP_Careers_Study_Executive_Report_FINAL-Revised_031116.pdf?ver=2019-06-26-075622-550

 

Appendix: Biographical Sketches

Chelsea A. LeNoble is an assistant professor of I-O psychology in the Department of Applied Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University–Worldwide. Her research program focuses on the individual, team-level, and organizational factors related to employee engagement, resilience, and recovery from work stress. Part of a new faculty cluster in the area of human resilience and emergency services, Dr. LeNoble works with communications and emergency management scholars to support high-stress occupations such as healthcare workers and first responders.

Dr. LeNoble earned her PhD in I-O Psychology from Florida Institute of Technology. After graduating, she completed a 2.5-year postdoctoral fellowship at Clemson University and Prisma Health in Greenville, SC. As an embedded scholar within the health system, she led interdisciplinary research projects on burnout and resilience, employee well-being and engagement, and leadership and team development.

Danielle Wald is a senior consultant at APTMetrics, where she provides consulting services in the field of I-O psychology across a range of industries. This includes conducting job analyses, developing competency models, and creating selection and development assessments. Danielle is also a doctoral candidate studying I-O psychology at The Graduate Center and Baruch College, City University of New York (CUNY). Her primary research interests lie within the occupational-health-psychology domain, with a specific focus on stress and well-being in the workplace. Her current research focuses on the daily experience of work stressors and the impact that they have on employee self-esteem, emotions, health, and behaviors. 

Dana Verhoeven is a postdoctoral Cancer Research Training Award fellow in the Health Systems and Interventions Research Branch of the Healthcare Delivery Research Program at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Dana’s research focuses on bridging the scientist–practitioner gap in healthcare by evaluating organizational factors that impact healthcare team functioning and developing interventions to enhance care delivery and patient outcomes. At NCI, she supports the NCI Multilevel Intervention Training Institute (MLTI) to develop a training-evaluation program and will also assist in defining the scope of organizational measures being assessed across NCORP projects.

Dana earned her MS and PhD in I-O Psychology from Clemson University, where she conducted research supported by numerous funding agencies, such as NASA, NSF, the U.S. Army Research Institute, and Prisma Health. Her work applies both quantitative and qualitative methods to assess barriers that inhibit care coordination both within and between care teams. Leveraging a multiteam-systems perspective, she strives to implement evidence-based practices to enhance team processes and effectiveness across high-stress contexts, such as healthcare. Given her experience conducting research across a range of contexts and her newly awarded fellowship, Verhoeven offers unique insight into the postdoctoral application, interview, and selection process.

Christopher W. Wiese is an assistant professor of I-O psychology at Georgia Institute of Technology. Following earning his PhD from the University of Central Florida, he was a postdoctoral fellow simultaneously at Purdue University and the University of Pennsylvania. He has served as the student lead on several federally funded projects (Office of Naval Research, Army Research Laboratory, NASA). He has also recently served as a consultant whereby he provided his expertise in the areas of team performance, well-being, and quantitative methods on an army-funded grant on team and leader resilience. His current research interest focuses on worker well-being, team dynamics in extreme contexts, and commuting.

Marissa Shuffler is an associate professor at Clemson University and the current chair for SIOP’s Education & Training Committee. Her expertise includes team and leader training and development with an emphasis on high-risk, complex environments. She has conducted research for government and industry, with over $6 million in grant funding, including a prestigious 5-year National Science Foundation CAREER grant for her research exploring the use of team profiles for designing better team development interventions.

Dr. Shuffler has unique experience in the postdoctoral advising domain, serving as the academic lead for an embedded postdoctoral fellow co-advising team at Prisma Health. In 2017, she helped to establish the first I-O postdoctoral embedded-scholar position within the applied organizational research program at the healthcare system. Co-advising a postdoctoral fellow with executive leadership, Dr. Shuffler has experienced the opportunities and benefits of the embedded-scholar structure, a less traditional postdoctoral fellow model. Furthermore, as chair of SIOP’s Education & Training Committee, she is dedicated to ensuring that all SIOP members, and especially I-O graduate students, are aware of the opportunities afforded by postdoctoral fellowships.

Gregory Ruark is the chief of the Foundational Science Research Unit at the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. As chief, he shapes, develops, and executes two programs of research: (a) applied program of research focused on team composition, processes, and measurement; and (b) ARI’s basic research program covering the domains of personnel assessment and measurement; team and organizational dynamics; leadership development, processes, and measurement; and learning in formal and informal contexts. Dr. Ruark’s research interests include leadership of teams, emotions in the workplace, creativity, and entrepreneurship. He holds a PhD in I-O Psychology from the University of Oklahoma.

Dr. Ruark has brought on and mentored four postdoctoral fellows since 2015 through the Consortium Research Fellows Program. Under his mentoring, postdocs develop a research program based on career selection that lends itself to producing manuscripts to be submitted to peer-reviewed journals, contributions to edited books, and conferences presentations. Dr. Ruark’s postdocs develop an increased understanding of the external funding cycle, specifically how to competitively respond to a call for proposals.

Bob Sinclair is a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Clemson University where he also serves as the graduate program coordinator for the department’s MS and PhD programs. Bob received his PhD from Wayne State University in 1995 and has previously been on the faculty at the University of Tulsa and Portland State University.  He is a founding member and past president of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology and currently is the founding editor-in-chief of Occupational Health Science and an associate editor of the Journal of Business and Psychology.  He has published four edited volumes and over 80 articles and book chapters in outlets such as the Journal of Applied PsychologyJournal of Organizational Behavior, and the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.  His research interests generally focus on employee occupational safety, health, and well-being with specific research topics currently including safety and health climate, economic stress, and healthcare applications. He has mentored a postdoctoral student in the past and is a strong advocate of postdoctoral experiences for his own students.

Ruth Kanfer is professor of psychology and director of the Work Science Center at Georgia Institute of Technology. She credits her success in transitioning to I-O psychology from clinical psychology to her 2-year postdoctoral NIH Fellowship in Quantitative Psychology at the University of Illinois.  At Illinois, while taking advanced quantitative courses, she also worked with I-O faculty to reposition her motivation research into the areas of work motivation/goal setting, skill learning, and organizational justice. Throughout her career she has supported and mentored pre- and post-doctoral students, including many women who have progressed to careers in both academia and industry.

Dr. Kanfer’s research interests continue to focus on motivation in the context of job search, work, and employment.  She has published over 120 articles and chapters, coauthored four SIOP volumes, served on 11 journal editorial boards, and served as the AoM OB Division Chair and on the AoM Board of Governors. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Society for Human Resource Management, the Spencer Foundation, the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE USA), and private organizations.  As director of the Work Science Center, she participates in and facilitates multidisciplinary research on the effects of technology on work identity, engagement, future time perspective, learning, and career outcomes.

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